Sunday, July 03, 2011

Early Pilots

In 1715 the North Carolina Colonial Assembly enacted a statute to establish pilots at Ocracoke Inlet. Masters of sailing vessels needed pilots with local knowledge to guide their ships through the inlet, across the bar, and into the ever-changing channels that led to deeper water in Pamlico Sound, and from there to mainland ports.

In spite of the 1715 legislation, pilots of record do not appear until almost two decades later. For many years Ocracoke Inlet pilots then played an important role in the history of eastern North Carolina. In addition to providing safe passage to mainland ports, the pilots were required to notify port commissioners of incoming vessels carrying persons afflicted with contagious diseases.

There is no comprehensive list of Ocracoke Inlet pilots. However, David Stick, in his book The Outer Banks of North Carolina, lists the following early pilots:

• Miles Gale (one of the very first captains to make a formal request to be appointed as a pilot at Ocracoke Inlet, in 1734)
• James Bun
• David Wallace
• John Dixon
• Francis Jackson
• George Howard
• Lorable [probably Zora Bable] Gaskins

Stick lists the following Ocracoke Inlet pilots as of February, 1773 (they had petitioned the legislature to prevent what they considered unfair competition by unlicensed black slaves and freemen):

• John Williams
• George Bell
• John Bragg
• William Bragg
• Adam Gaskins
• Richard Wade
• William Styerin
• Simon Hall

A Frenchman, Pierre Auguste [Augustus] Cabarrus (1758-1819), is also known to have been a pilot during the early period.

Twenty-seven pilots are recorded in the 1850 census, the first census to list occupations:

• Oliver Bragg
• Nathaniel Bragg
• Benjamine Gaskins
• Jacob Gaskill
• Richard Gaskins
• Robert Gaskill
• Robert D. Gaskill
• Thomas Gaskill
• Abner Howard
• Wallace Howard
• Benjamine Jackson
• George W. Jackson
• Benjamine G. O'Neal
• William O'Neal
• Martin O'Neal
• John O'Neal
• Simon O'Neal
• Howard Jackson
• Thomas O'Neal
• John Gaskins
• Amasa Simpson
• Wallace Simpson
• William S. Tolson
• Caswell Williams
• John Williams
• Francis Williams
• Lemuel Salter

Hatteras Inlet opened in 1846. Because the new inlet was more navigable than Ocracoke Inlet, most of the pilots soon moved to Hatteras. By 1900 only two Ocracoke residents, Samuel Bragg & James Bragg, are listed as pilots.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is a modern day ghost story by guest columnist Tom McDonald. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous10:30 AM

    Gee, back in 1715 perhaps they too suffered had UNfunded mandates. Perhaps NEWS traveled slowly back then, thus compliance with a new rule lacked enforcement and an unwillingness to act accordingly. Oh my, so little has changed today. Also, this supposed threat of unlicensed pilots-- why would a customer not ask to see the license, why would they be willing to hire an unlicensed pilot?? it all goes back to a lack of enforcement of the rule. Once again I am confused--1715 new rule then in 1773 they complain about un fair competition sixty years later ---they start complaining about unfair competition six decades after the fact ?? What no UNION--- are they trying to repeal the law or what how to they reek to remedy the situation???

  2. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Interesting & very thorough answer to my question. Time is such a precious gift... Thank you for being so generous with yours.

  3. Anonymous5:07 PM

    What does it mean when an inlet "opens?" Was Hatteras connected to the mainland or to another island before that?

  4. The Outer Banks is a long, narrow (and dynamic) sandbar off the coast of North Carolina. Inlets frequently open or close as the result of storms and hurricanes. The only inlet that has been continuously open since Europeans began keeping records is Ocracoke Inlet. Hatteras Inlet and Oregon Inlet were both created during a severe storm in 1846. The tidal creeks on Ocracoke between the village and the north end are almost certainly remnants of old inlets.

    A perusal of old maps of the Outer Banks reveals the ever-changing size and shape of the islands off our coast.

  5. Anonymous11:41 AM

    It's interesting to study the lists of pilots through the years, looking for native Ocracoke names. In the 1734 list, only three of seven pilots had native Ocracoke names - Jackson, Howard, and Gaskins. (Dixon is a Portsmouth name.) In the 1773 list, five of eight had native names - Williams, Bragg x2,Gaskins, and Styerin (Styron). In the 1850 list, all but one had native names.(Salter is Portsmouth and south.) Philip, I would appreciate having your corrections and amplifications.

  6. Anon (11:41), you are correct about pilots and native Ocracoke names. Life on Ocracoke in the 18th century was certainly difficult. I am guessing that many of those early pilots (or their families) just couldn't take it...and moved away. By the mid-1800s the community was larger and more stable (by then there was a schoolhouse, a church, and several small stores), with better connections with the mainland and other ports on the east coast.